Armenia. Cambodia. Rwanda. Bosnia. Darfur. All well-known modern examples of genocide where entire people groups were wiped out (or almost wiped out). These are awful tragedies, worthy of our sorrow and grief.
And yet, ask the critics, is the God of the Bible really any different? When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, was it not God who commanded them to wipe out all the indigenous people (Deut. 20:17)? Is God not guilty of genocide?
It makes me think of the famous bumper-sticker quote, “The only difference between God and Adolf Hitler is that God is more proficient at genocide.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult, complex issue. We feel obligated, understandably, to get God “off the hook” for the deaths of so many people. Many possibilities come to mind for how that might be done. Maybe we’ve misread the passage. Maybe it’s just symbolic. Maybe the Israelites misunderstood God’s command.
But I don’t think we need to get God off the hook. I don’t think he wants off the hook. As painful as this issue is, it highlights what we, and our culture, need to hear more than ever: God is holy, people are sinful, the world is broken, and his judgment is just.
If we are to rightly understand the destruction of the Canaanites, several principles must be remembered.
1. We Don’t Get What We Deserve
First, every human on the planet deserves God’s judgment—not just the Canaanites. Right now, all humans everywhere—from the kind old lady next door to the hardened criminal on death row—are all deeply sinful. And they were born this way. Since birth, all human beings stand guilty, not only for their own sins but for the sin of Adam that has been passed down to them (Rom 5:12). And the penalty for sin is clear: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Rather than being surprised God will finally judge people for their sins (even in great numbers), perhaps we should be shocked that he waits so long to do it.
So, what does this mean? At any moment, God could take the life of any human as judgment for their sins. And he would be totally justified in doing so. He owes salvation to no one.
This quickly changes our perspective on the Canaanite conquest. Rather than being surprised God will finally judge people for their sins (even in great numbers), perhaps we should be shocked that he waits so long to do it. Every one of us is alive and breathing solely because of God’s incredible patience and grace.
2. Our Expectations Are Way Off
Second, the timing of God’s judgment doesn’t always match human expectations. Sometimes we think God should judge the most sinful people first and work down the list. But God doesn’t always work the way we expect. In fact, Jesus made this exact point when asked why the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed a bunch of people. Jesus replied:
Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:4–5)
Ouch. In other words, people don’t have to be the worst of sinners to receive God’s judgment. And he isn’t obligated to judge all simultaneously.
There is a key difference between the Canaanite conquest and modern-day genocide.
While the Canaanites weren’t the only sinful people in the world, and not necessarily even the worst, their sins were egregious. God drove them out of the land primarily because their practices were “detestable” in his sight—gross idolatry, sorcerers and mediums, sexual perversions, even sacrificing their own children to the gods (Deut. 18:9–14).
Despite these practices, God had been incredibly patient with Canaan’s inhabitants for generation after generation, dating back even to Abraham’s time (Gen 15:13–16). Nevertheless, God’s patience had expired.
3. God Judges Through Means
Third, God uses a variety of instruments to accomplish his judgment. Sure, he could just miraculously take every Canaanite life in a single instance. But God has a history of using various means to bring judgment.
At this juncture in Scripture, such means have already included natural disasters, disease and pestilence, drought, and economic collapse. At numerous points, moreover, God raises up a human army to accomplish his purposes. And in the Canaanite conquest, he uses the nation of Israel as his instrument of judgment.
Here we come to a key difference between the Canaanite conquest and modern-day genocide. Both involve great loss of life. Both involve human armies. But the former is an instrument of God’s righteous judgment, whereas the latter is humans murdering others for their own purposes. On the surface there may be similarities, but they’re decidedly not the same act.
An example might help. Imagine a scenario where one human injects another with a deadly toxin that kills them. Is that murder? It depends. If it was done by a gang member who wanted to knock off a rival gang member, the answer would be yes. But if it was done by a federal-prison official authorized by the state to administer lethal injection, the answer would be no.
On the surface, the two acts might look the same. But everything comes down to whether the taking of life is properly authorized. The issue is not whether a life is taken, but how and why.
4. His Judgment Is Just
Let me try to draw all of this together. If every human deserves judgment (and we do), and if God is justified in taking a life whenever he decides to execute that judgment (and he is), and if he uses various instruments for that judgment (including human armies), then there’s nothing immoral about the Canaanite conquest.
God’s judgment is just, even if we don’t fully understand it.
To object to the conquest would require us to object to all of God’s acts of judgment. Do we also object to Noah’s flood, and to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and to the plagues on Egypt, and so on all the way to the cross itself?
In the end, the conquest of Canaan remains a difficult and complex issue. And yet if the conquest is seen within the context of the Christian worldview, rather than from outside it, the objections fade away. God’s judgment is just, even if we don’t fully understand it (Isa. 55:8–9). And if we take that away, we’re left with something other than the God of Christianity.